Where the Wind Leads: A Refugee Family’s Miraculous Story of Loss, Rescue, and Redemption by Vinh Chung with Tim Downs (W Publishing Group/Thomas Nelson, 2014)
Where the Wind Leads looks backward. That’s what a memoir does. It’s about traumas unfathomable, and how Vinh Chung ’04 and his family rallied to face the impossible. It is not, thank goodness, about becoming a doctor, which is another excellent reason to read it.
Chung was “born in a country that no longer exists and grew up in a country I never knew existed.” His family thrived in South Vietnam; quiet capitalists who ran a rice-milling business named Peace, Unity, Profit. The business was overseen by his widowed grandmother, an operational genius who had “a temper like a Laotian land mine” and “opened Pepsi bottles with her teeth.” The extended family lived in a French colonial, and the children were driven to school in a Mercedes.
After Saigon crumbled in 1975, the mill was reassessed as a governmental treasure and permanently “borrowed” by the People’s Army. So were the car and the house. Under the new regime, old money was just paper, burned as fuel to cook pig food.
Vinh was three and a half years old when his family—and 280 unrelated others—set sail in a seventy-foot boat without bathrooms after bribing the government to wink at their departure. Family jewels were smuggled in diapers, money was sewn into pants hems. There was no destination.
This trip is futile to imagine by those of us who, at the time, were students moving within the cosmos of Buildings A, B, C, and D. At HMS, we were rotating stereoisomers while pirates off the coast of Malaysia were ramming the refugees’ wooden boat. While children were dropped over the hull into their fathers’ arms and carried through the sea onto Malaysia’s shore (Vinh’s first memory), we were plating petri dishes. Bacterial colonies grew out in colors while the unwelcome refugees were forced back to sea in smaller boats without tillers, water, or food.
Finally, the refugees were discovered by a Christian rescue freighter, deliberately trolling the South China Sea. Neither rescuers nor rescued felt that the discovery was random. In the midst of 600 miles of ocean, they took it as a purposeful miracle. In Boston, we took finals.
The final third of the book follows the family’s first years in the United States: Arkansas, of all places, where “all Caucasians … look the same to Asians.” The family enlarged to eleven, and the youngest children learned to speak Vietnamese in their Baptist church. For the kids, life was full of Americana: Halloween, football, math exams. They grew up to become teachers, researchers, dentists, and doctors. For the parents, life was different. Chung’s father, the former COO of a multimillion dollar enterprise, worked an assembly line. Chung’s mother cooked in a Chinese restaurant.
This is a memoir in which the author frankly acknowledges his multiple sources. To be one hundred percent accurate (and, as a Mohs surgeon, I’m sure he is), Chung was too young to recall most of his life in Vietnam. But he can and does piercingly recall the existence that all refugees face until they find home: “no nation mourned their departure, none awaited their arrival … there was heartbreak but not history … [for refugees] were just some country’s former problem.”
Elissa Ely ’87 is a psychiatrist at the Massachusetts Mental Health Center.
Photo: Jake Miller